INDUSTRY INSIDER: Beyond the Blockbusters; Predicting Summer's Indie Smashes
by Joe Leydon
Editor's note: indieWIRE introduces a new column that goes inside the independent film business. We've tapped 20-year industry writer Joe Leydon, a professor of film history and critic for MSNBC, Variety, the Houston Press, and the San Francisco Examiner among other publications, to keep a critical eye on business trends. In his debut column, Leydon looks at indie distributors' signs of intelligent life amid the major studios' summer blockbusters.
(indieWIRE: 07.01.02) -- Do indie distributors gaze at summer blockbusters and yearn for their own tentpole pictures? Of course they do. And, better still, sometimes those dreams are realized.
As far back as summer 1985, when "Kiss of the Spider Woman" flexed box-office muscle as profitable counter-programming, savvy boutique outfits have defied conventional wisdom by proving that, even during the warm-weather months, some people always are ready to seek signs of intelligent life at the movies.
In more recent years, such diverse indie offerings as "The Winslow Boy," "The Tao of Steve," and "The Opposite of Sex" have been the specialty-market equivalent of smash summer hits. And this summer, IFC's shrewdly marketed "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is shaping up as something even bigger than a tentpole -- practically an entire circus tent -- having amassed a growing nearly $24-million gross. Trust me: If a major-studio release did proportionately impressive business, we'd already be hearing pre-production talk about "My Big Fat Greek Honeymoon."
Naturally, some indie purists will snort derisively at such news, and complain that "Greek Wedding" isn't a "real" indie movie. But to make such arbitrary distinctions is (a) fatuously shortsighted, if not criminally smug, and, worse, (b) disingenuously heedless of what a tentpole means in the world of indies. A whopping big gross for "Greek Wedding" (along with revenues from the steamy sleeper hit "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which has more than $13 million to its North American credit) will help IFC balance books that were dripping red ink after the unfortunate fizzles of films including "Thomas In Love" and "The Business of Strangers."
Similarly, the surprisingly warm response to "The Fast Runner" (Atanarjuat) can only be good news for Lot 47, a distributor that hasn't had much good news in much too long. In fact, the latter film's art-house success ($1.67 million and rising) could be viewed as an even bigger story than the "Greek" miracle: A leisurely paced, English-subtitled, Inuktitut-language drama has so far grossed more than the combined grosses of the seemingly more accessible "CQ," "Triumph of Love," and "Festival in Cannes."
So where is the next art-house tentpole? Some observers are expecting great things -- i.e., good reviews, terrific crossover business -- for "Tadpole," perhaps the best Whit Stillman movie that Whit Stillman never made, guaranteed to stoke the erotic fantasies of every male teen-aged and twentysomething "Aliens" fan who's ever lusted for Sigourney Weaver. (Great news: The shot-on-video feature looks a lot better now than it did during its Sundance 2002 premiere.) And there may be enough connoisseurs of '70s American cinema out there to make "The Kid Stays in the Picture" -- an intelligently and amusingly hagiographic ode to Robert Evans, the Paramount grand kahuna who green-lit an astonishing number of incontestable classics -- one of the top-grossing documentaries of recent vintage.
But if I were a betting man, I'd wager my son's college fund on the fortunes of USA Films' "Never Again," the one specialty film on the radar that appears capable of scoring with the same overlooked, underserved audience -- over-30 folks who don't go to movies very often, but generate tremendously powerful word-of-mouth when they see something they like -- that ignited the "Greek Wedding" phenom. This may be the most subversive movie of the year, in that it dares to suggest that people over 50 -- specifically, the sublimely well matched Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambour -- are capable of enjoying good, hot, sweaty sex (with each other).
I'd like to add a foreign-language film to my tentpole handicapping. But the sad truth is, distributors and exhibitors of foreign-language imports no longer have brand names to sell. To be sure, there are sporadic subtitled items that become crossover hits -- think "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Life is Beautiful" or, more recently, "Amelie" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- leading the easily impressionable to expect a new golden age of art-house prosperity. But the aforementioned titles are freakish phenomena, not business as usual. And it's highly unlikely that, a year or so for now, there will be many ticketbuyers beyond hard-core specialty-audience mavens who'll be clamoring for, say, the next Jean-Pierre Jeunet opus.
Think about it: Ingmar Bergman is retired, Michelangelo Antonioni can't get insured -- and even when he can get insured, his films are scarcely released -- and Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Francois Truffaut are dead. But perhaps whether Jean-Luc Godard -- Truffaut's fellow French New Waver and, more important, an erstwhile name brand himself -- can bring wayward cineastes back to the box-office. Manhattan plans a late-August opening in New York and Los Angeles for "In Praise of Love," the first Godard film to receive even limited U.S. theatrical exposure since Cannon half-heartedly (and, perhaps, back-handedly) tossed "King Lear" into the marketplace. Some critics who have viewed the film at Cannes and other festivals have already praised "Love" with favorable comparisons to Godard's stylistically audacious and intellectually provocative work of the '60s and '80s. Those same scribes -- along with many other critics of a certain age -- are very likely to provide "money quotes" while waxing sentimental about Godard in particular and the French New Wave in general when "In Praise of Love" hits the art-house circuit. That's the kind of free advertising even the makers of "Spider-Man" might envy.
Trouble is that an entire generation of foreign-language film aficionados has come of age without ever being able to see a new Godard film in first-run U.S. theatrical release. People in their 20s and early 30s are familiar with Godard -- assuming, of course, they are familiar -- only through well-received reissues ("Contempt," for instance) or DVD releases. Is that enough for Manhattan to assume there's been sufficient spadework for the planting of a tentpole? Or has the shelf life for this particular brand name long expired? Stay tuned.